Democracy and Control over the Purse

Buencamino does political affairs analysis for Action for Economic
Reforms. This piece was published in the newspaper Today, 8 September 2004, page 9.

If history repeats itself, I should think we can expect the same thing again. -NBC softball announcer in Athens Olympics

When Ronald Reagan was President and the US government was in the midst
of run-away budget deficits, he proposed a constitutional amendment
mandating a balanced budget. The initiative was later refined by his
successors to rescissions and a line- item veto. Eventually, a
line-item veto act was passed by Congress.

During the debates prior to passing the law, Senator Byrd, then
Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, waged a losing battle
against granting the President a Line-Item Veto. He delivered a series
of 14 speeches from May to October 1993 that raised questions regarding
the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances that a
tri-partite form of government rests upon. Naturally, he was accused of
protecting pork, which he was, but he was also addressing issues that
go to the very root of what a republic is all about.

In the first of his speeches, he warned, “In search of antidotes for
this fast-spreading fiscal melanoma of suffocating deficits and debt,
the budget medicine men have once again begun their annual pilgrimage
to the shrine of Saint Line -Item Veto, to worship at the altar of
fool’s gold, quack remedies, such as enhanced rescission, line -item
veto , and other graven images, which, if adopted, would give rise to
unwarranted expectations and possibly raise serious constitutional
questions involving separation of powers, checks and balances, and
control of the national purse.”

In his other speeches he reminded everyone that “When the Roman Senate
relinquished control of the purse to Caesar and to the emperors who
followed him, that Rome ceased to be a republic.”

He cited English history, “It was my understanding of how the history
of England was influenced by the struggles over the national purse
strings in England, the power of the purse was sharpened, refined, and
utilized as a potent weapon to force the king to redress grievances, to
resist unreasonable demands by the king, and to promote specific policy
objectives that were important to the people’s representatives in
Parliament.”

Byrd cautioned against the creation of an elective monarchy. He said,
“This essential tool-control of the purse by the people’s
representatives in Congress—lies at the very foundation of our
freedoms. This control of the purse is one of the most effective
bulwarks ever constructed to repel a despot, control a tyrant, or
shackle the hands of an overreaching executive.”

Today, our Congress cannot increase the budget submitted to it by the
President, it can only cut it. Furthermore, if the President were to
submit a budget which Congress does not find acceptable, the previous
year’s budget is automatically passed without the restrictions
contained in the original. Yet, many across the land  clamor for
Congress to give up even what little is left of its control over the
purse to the President.

One can say that Congress, because of many members who are crooks,
brought this upon itself. But, we must ask, lest we forget: Wasn’t it
precisely Marcos’s exclusive control of the purse that began the
hellish journey that brought us to the mess we are in now?  Do we
want the same thing to happen over and over again? Are we doomed never
to learn our lessons?

Pork barrel can and should be rationalized—but not by gifting one
individual with the awesome power of exclusive control over the purse
and expecting that individual to remain rational. That is just plain
crazy.

We cannot allow President Arroyo to emerge a winner in the fiscal
crisis that she, in large part, created.  We cannot give her the
ultimate power.

No comments yet.